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- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Monthly Column Monthly Column
- Created: 01 February 2016 01 February 2016
In previous articles, I’ve written about how the High End show, held annually in May in Munich, Germany, has become increasingly important to high-end hi-fi manufacturers, consumers, and journalists, even as the Consumer Electronics Show, held each January in Las Vegas, Nevada, has grown steadily less so. At the end of 2014, I felt that the two events were neck-and-neck in relevance. Then, the tremendous success of High End 2015 inched it ahead of CES. Now, having covered CES 2016, held January 6-9, and taken note of how many fewer exhibitors and attendees there were than at the 2015 CES, I feel that High End is on the cusp of becoming the most important high-end hi-fi show in the world.
But despite its new second-tier standing, CES is still far more relevant than any event other than High End, and early this January, our reporters found plenty in Las Vegas to cover for our reports on SoundStage! Global -- as did I, as you’ll read below.
These are the five products I thought were the Best of CES 2016:
Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 90 loudspeakers
To celebrate its 90th anniversary -- November 17, 2015 -- Bang & Olufsen, of Denmark, created the BeoLab 90 loudspeaker: an 18-driver, fully powered speaker with built-in DSP that provides user adjustment of frequency response and room correction, as well as, most originally, dynamic alteration by the user of the entire speaker’s radiation pattern to produce a narrow beam (B&O’s word) of sound for a single listener, or a wider beam for multiple listeners, or a room-filling Party Mode. RCA and XLR analog inputs are provided, as are three digital inputs: USB, coaxial, and optical, to respectively support up to 24/192, 24/192, and 24-bit/96kHz signals. The BeoLab 90’s list price of $80,000 USD per pair makes it, by far, the most expensive speaker B&O has ever made.
With the BeoLab 90’s 18 drivers firing this way and that, its shape and appearance don’t make it one of the things of beauty we’ve come to expect from B&O. At first, this surprised me -- I’d read an article several years ago about the company where it stated that, at B&O, appearance comes first. Is that still true? I wondered. Kinda, I learned. Geoff Martin, B&O’s tonmeister, told me that for almost all B&O products, the industrial designers have the most say -- but for the BeoLab 5 and now the BeoLab 90, top priority was given to sound quality. As B&O’s website says of the BeoLab 90, “It will not be for everybody.”
And when the display samples were demonstrated, I heard what the top design priority had been. Because of the various ways the BeoLab 90s’ drivers were pointing, I’d expected to hear a loose, diffuse sound. But when Martin played “No Sanctuary Here,” from Chris Jones’s Roadhouses & Automobiles (Stockfisch), I heard the opposite -- the sound exploded from the speakers forcefully, effortlessly, and with incredibly focused images that were not smeared to either side. The bass was not only deeper and fuller than I heard from any other speaker at CES 2016, it never overloaded the room. And as I stated in my article about the 90s at CES 2016, the midrange had such a richness that it could have fooled me into thinking there were little tube amps inside, not the solid-state class-D amplifiers actually used. The entire sound was nothing short of glorious. Only the highs I couldn’t get a handle on -- they sounded a touch soft with the tracks played, which is why I said, in my article, that the jury is still out in that regard. Otherwise, this demonstration was, by far, the best I heard -- and the BeoLab 90 was my favorite product -- at CES 2016.
Dynaudio Xeo 2 loudspeakers
Dynaudio is another Danish company moving ferociously ahead with cutting-edge speaker technologies. Their Xeo series includes built-in amplifiers, DSP, and high-resolution wireless operation, in addition to analog and digital connections. Models released before CES 2016 included the Xeo 6 floorstander and Xeo 4 stand-mount; in Las Vegas they added the Xeo 2 bookshelf model, which I believe will be the most successful of the bunch.
The Xeo 2 sells for $1599/pair in basic black or white (many other colors will be available), but provides more functionality than the other two Xeos: it features Bluetooth connectivity, and doesn’t need the Xeo Hub or Dynaudio Connect boxes to work (though you’ll need those devices for the Xeo 2 to work in a multiroom system). Each pair of Xeo 2s comprises a master and a slave speaker. On the rear panel of the master unit is a pair of analog inputs (RCA), an optical digital input that can accept hi-rez digital files, and a power-cord inlet. When connected to a source component, it transmits the music signal wirelessly to the slave unit, which need only be plugged into a wall socket.
Dynaudio touts the Xeo 2’s simplicity of operation -- but it’s also proud of the speaker’s looks and sound. The Xeo 2 has much more modern and attractive styling than the Xeo 4 or 6, which alone should attract more buyers. One really nice touch is the set of touch-sensitive controls inset in the top panel, which makes for a very clean appearance. The display pair had remarkably deep, full bass; a midrange presence that made voices pop magically into the room; and exceptional clarity throughout the audioband. Yes, it’s convenient and looks good -- but the Xeo 2 also has true high-end sound.
ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 loudspeakers
When speaker designer Andrew Jones joined ELAC last year, my eyebrows rose. Jones is best known for designing speakers for KEF and TAD that have concentric drivers -- the tweeter is positioned in the throat of a midrange cone, just ahead of the midrange’s magnet, so that the two drivers operate in the same acoustic space. Except for a couple of top models in which an AMT tweeter is mounted at the center of a flat midrange diaphragm, ELAC speakers have discrete drivers. I wondered if Jones had sold out.
With the introduction of the new Uni-Fi series at CES 2016, it became apparent that Jones hasn’t. The line comprises three models: the UB5 bookshelf ($499/pair), the UC5 center-channel ($349 each), and the UF5 floorstander ($998/pair). Each has a 1” soft-dome tweeter nestled into the center of a 4” aluminum-cone midrange. Jones is clearly leading ELAC in the direction of concentric drivers.
At CES 2016 Jones was playing the UB5, which, in addition to its concentric drivers, also has a 5.25” aluminum-cone woofer, which makes it a three-way design -- rare in a bookshelf speaker, especially at so low a price (most bookshelfs are two-ways). It also has a unique vinyl finish: instead of trying to look like wood, which few vinyl veneers actually succeed at doing, it has the appearance of brushed aluminum -- which, to me, looked better. More important was its sound, which was incredible for the price: surprisingly full, deep bass; great presence through the midband; and very refined highs -- all apparent throughout a very wide listening space. When I sat dead center, I heard very precise imaging on a well-developed soundstage of excellent width and good depth. The ELAC Uni-Fi UB5 is at the top of our list of inexpensive bookshelf speakers to review -- it could be a giant-killer.
Bryston 4B3 stereo amplifier
For me, the most important electronics introduced at CES 2016 were Bryston’s new Cubed amplifiers. The 2.5B3, 3B3, and 4B3 stereo amps and 7B3, 14B3, and 28B3 monoblocks are all direct replacements of earlier, similarly named Squared models introduced eight years ago, the names of all of which end with the suffix SST2. (For this new line, Bryston has decided to ditch SST and simply close the superscript 3 up to the B.)
Bryston’s SST2 models have long been held in high regard including by SoundStage! Network writers -- each model offers exceptional sound quality at a very reasonable price, and is backed by a 20-year warranty. And Bryston has a sterling reputation for fixing everything they make, no questions asked. (I’ve run across many companies that offer long warranties, but refuse to fix a problem if they can find a way to blame the buyer for it.) The Cubed models are purported to sound and measure even better than the Squareds, mainly because of a new, patented input stage that Bryston claims reduces the distortion substantially. The rejection of common-mode and EMI/RFI noise are also said to be improved. And the Cubeds’ front panels look better than the Squareds’.
To me, the sweet spot of Bryston’s Squared line was the 4BSST2 stereo amp -- its power outputs of 300Wpc into 8 ohms or 500Wpc into 4 ohms are enough for most situations, and its retail price of $4995 is low enough that many serious audiophiles on a budget can afford it. For me, the 4BSST2 has always been a great benchmark to judge other amps against -- which is why, for a couple of years, my reference system included one. Now there’s the 4B3, with the same specified power outputs and the improvements noted above. Given that the new models are all basically the same as the old, I suspect that the 4B3 will remain the sweet spot in the new line.
As I write this, none of the prices for the Cubed models have been set. But if Bryston’s prices for the new series remain in line with its past products, I suspect that the 4B3 won’t cost more than $6000 -- in which case it should represent at least as good a value as its predecessor.
NAD Masters Series M32 integrated amplifier
NAD is best known for manufacturing dependable, good-sounding, budget-priced electronics. However, with the launch in 2009 of the Masters Series M2 Direct Digital amplifier ($5999), NAD made clear that they were also interested in making components that could be considered on the cutting edge of technology. The M2’s circuitry is almost entirely in the digital domain; the signal is converted to analog only at the MOSFET-based output stage, which makes its operation more like that of a power-DAC (i.e., a digital-to-analog converter with enough power to drive a pair of speakers). Most who heard the M2 remarked on the striking clarity of its sound, and many considered it a groundbreaking design.
The M2’s longevity -- since its launch, it has been the only Direct Digital integrated amplifier in NAD’s Masters Series -- speaks well for its technology and design. But the M2 is no longer alone -- at CES 2016, NAD introduced the Masters Series M32 Direct Digital integrated amplifier ($3999). Designed to produce a continuous 150Wpc into 8 or 4 ohms, the M32 is capable of dynamic peaks of 160Wpc into 8 ohms or 350Wpc into 4 ohms.
NAD used their Modular Design Construction in the M32, to permit the swapping in and out of internal circuit boards for expansions and upgrades. The M32 supports BluOS, the music-streaming and -management system developed by Bluesound (which, like NAD, is owned by the Lenbrook Group), to permit wired or wireless connection to a network. The M32 also has USB, coaxial, optical, and AES/EBU digital inputs; two pairs of analog inputs; an analog moving-coil/magnet phono input (I asked about a digital phono stage, but NAD’s Greg Stidsen said that the processing requirements are too high); and a headphone jack. Incoming digital signals remain in the digital domain, but are converted to a pulse-width-modulation (PWM) stream with a sampling frequency of 844kHz. The analog inputs, including the phono, are converted to PWM streams, and remain in the digital domain until the final output stage.
Despite my praise for the M2’s longevity, time marches on -- digital technology has improved in the last six years, and I’m sure that NAD’s engineers have learned a lot in that time. Therefore, I have no hesitation in thinking that the M32 is probably better than the M2, which is why I thought it was one of the most exciting new products to debut at CES 2016.
Usually at this time of year, we’re looking forward to covering the Salon Son & Image show, held each spring in Montreal, Quebec. SSI has always been one of my favorite shows, for its fun, positive vibe. However, in the last few years the quality of SSI has been so poor that we’ve decided not to cover the 2016 event at all. Instead, we’re now focused on traveling to Munich for High End 2016, to be held May 5-8. Go to SoundStage! Global for our full on-site coverage of High End as it happens, followed on June 1 by my “Best of High End 2016” article in this space. Until then, look here for articles about products I’ve been listening to that I find exciting and believe you need to know about to heighten your pleasure in listening to music.
. . . Doug Schneider